Today we welcome a guest post from Ryan Hall, author of Beneath the Backbone of the World: Blackfoot People and the North American Borderlands, 1720-1877, out now from UNC Press.
For the better part of two centuries, between 1720 and 1877, the Blackfoot (Niitsitapi) people controlled a vast region of what is now the U.S. and Canadian Great Plains. As one of the most expansive and powerful Indigenous groups on the continent, they dominated the northern imperial borderlands of North America. The Blackfoot maintained their control even as their homeland became the site of intense competition between white fur traders, frequent warfare between Indigenous nations, and profound ecological transformation. In an era of violent and wrenching change, Blackfoot people relied on their mastery of their homelands’ unique geography to maintain their way of life. With extensive archival research from both the United States and Canada, Ryan Hall shows for the first time how the Blackfoot used their borderlands position to create one of North America’s most vibrant and lasting Indigenous homelands.
Beneath the Backbone of the World is part of our New Borderlands History series. It is available in paperback and ebook editions.
Who and what constitutes “early American” history? Answers vary depending on who you ask, but most people would probably conjure up a set of historical characters familiar to most Americans: Puritan pilgrims and Wampanoag Native Americans in Plymouth colony, English settlers and enslaved Africans in Virginia, or patriots and loyalists in the Revolutionary War. These diverse actors are all essential to the American story, but they represent only a geographical sliver of what became the United States. What about the rest of the continent—the vast majority of what became America that lay beyond the Appalachian Mountains? Generally, this vast region has been ignored by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century historians. As historian Claudio Saunt has demonstrated, the most prominent journals of early American history overwhelmingly publish studies of the east coast. Academic hiring follows similar patterns. The underlying assumption seems to be that the parts of America that (Anglo) Europeans directly colonized during this era are the parts of America most worth studying.
This geographic pigeon-holing of early American history has obscured fundamental aspects of the American story during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This is particularly true of the Blackfoot people of what is now Montana and Alberta, who are the subjects of my book. While coastal colonies reckoned with their own challenges some two thousand miles east, Blackfoot homelands almost simultaneously experienced historical changes that were equally dramatic and transformative. Expanding our lens of focus for early American history to include places like Blackfoot country can open up our perspective in several ways.
First, looking west can show us how colonial changes moved far in advance of settlement. We tend to think of western history in terms of expanding frontiers of face-to-face interactions, such as those between Native people and explorers, fur traders, settlers, or soldiers. But in reality, the impacts of European colonization almost always arrived in Indigenous homelands long before any European people did. In the case of the Blackfoot, horses arrived sometime around the 1720s, having made their way through Indigenous trade networks, followed shortly thereafter by guns and metal tools. European diseases like smallpox came not long afterwards. These new animals, goods, and diseases dramatically reoriented life long before Europeans settled there, setting into motion a tempest of conflict and reorganization that fundamentally altered the region. The drama that played out on the northwest plains, and elsewhere in the West, matched or exceeded that playing out on the east coast at the same time.
Second, shedding light on the earth-shaking transformations playing out in Indigenous homelands lends essential perspective into all of the events that came after. For example, it explains why certain Indigenous people embraced trade with Europeans. Among the Blackfoot, the fur trade became an essential part of life beginning in the 1780s up until the 1870s. Blackfoot people’s embrace of the fur trade, and their savvy manipulation of fur traders towards their own ends, only makes sense when placed in the context of the colonial changes that came before. The constant competition over horses and European technology, and the destabilizing dangers that came with disease and ecological change, forced them to compete aggressively for alliances and material advantages. Blackfoot country, like all corners of the American West, had already been in the grip of dramatic transformation for generations before Europeans stepped foot there. This only becomes clear by looking at the West as a significant part of seventeenth and eighteenth century “early American” history, and not just nineteenth century “frontier” history.
Finally, embracing a vast early America expands the cast of characters in our history, and rightfully puts Native people at the center of the story. The obvious problem with traditional American history is its fundamental ethnocentrism. We focus on the east coast because that’s where (most) European colonists lived. The implicit message of this approach is that history was not occurring elsewhere, and if it was, it wasn’t quite as important. Expanding our map of early America, and telling stories that put Indigenous people and Indigenous homelands at the center of the story, broadens our conception of who and what matters.
 Claudio Saunt, “Go West: Mapping Early American Historiography,” The William and Mary Quarterly 65, no. 4 (October 2008): 745-78.
Ryan Hall is assistant professor of history and Native American studies at Colgate University.